Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri
Jhumpa Lahiri’s third book, a collection of short stories about the lives of Indian immigrants and their cross-cultured children, is a great book. Lahiri creates weaves together the threads of her characters’ lives in a believable and artful way, which for me, is possibly the collection’s best quality. Her characters share a central experience: their parents are Indian immigrants wanting the American Dream for their children. The children, however, struggle to navigate a new world with an upbringing rooted in the old.
Possibly the character that represents this idea best is Sudha of “Only Goodness.” In this story Sudha is the daughter of Bengali immigrants in New England, attempting to give her younger brother Rahul the idealized American childhood her parents couldn’t provide. As a result, her world is rocked further than her parents’ when he slips into destructive bouts of alcoholism.
Lahiri’s other characters demonstrate her argument as well. From Ruma’s visit from her father in her new home Seattle in the title story, to Hema and Kaushik in the trio of stories in Part II of the book. Interspersed throughout, however, the lives of the parents take center stage as well. In “Hell-Heaven” a daughter tells the story of her mother and her life’s great love and heartbreak, Pranab Kaku. Already involved in an arranged marriage, the mother meets a local Bengali in Boston, where she, her husband and daughter live, who becomes a pseudo-uncle for the narrator. The mother is clearly in love, experiencing joy and heartbreak in America that she never could in India confined not only to her marriage but her culture as well.
While the strain of the Indian expatriate experience runs throughout the collection, Lahiri illuminates the human experience as a whole through her stories. Amit and Megan, the married-with-children couple from “A Choice of Accommodations” demonstrate the natural dissolution of a marriage and the greater story of its rebuilding.
Possibly the weakest link in the collection is “Nobody’s Business.” For me, this story artfully demonstrates the error of living one’s life to the extreme of either passion or reason. Sang, through passion, and Paul, through reason, live their lives by these rules but both find themselves empty at the end. While the argument is strong, the story read at times like a romance novel rather than serious fiction.
Overall, I very much enjoyed reading this collection and will be happy to pick up “The Namesake” soon!